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Archive for April, 2007

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The islands that vanished

Posted in Exploration, Geography on Friday, 20 April 2007

Aurores Islands

The Aurores Islands were first discovered by Captain Oyardvido, master of the sailing vessel Aurora (hence their name) in the early 1760s. They were situated in the South Atlantic to the south-east of the Falkland Islands. Other vessels reported them, and they were finally surveyed by a Spanish ship specially equipped for such work. Some years later, the captain of a vessel cruising in the vicinity decided he would take a look at these islands for himself. He studied his chart and altered course accordingly. He checked his bearings and posted a lookout in the crow’s nest. But nothing could be seen but the restless waves.

Cartographers have been obliged to remove these and many other mystery islands from their maps. These include St. Brandan’s Isle, supposedly situated in the Azores; and Graham Island, which appeared off the coast of Sicily some years ago. Both remained just long enough to be named and charted, and then disappeared. It was a tragic day when Garefowls Rock vanished from the North Atlantic. It was inhabited by the flightless bird, the great auk, and, when the island mysteriously disappeared about 150 years ago, the auks were compelled to seek refuge on another, more accessible, island nearby. Being unable to fly, they were easy prey for hunters and by 1850 they had become extinct.

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Journey to the secret City

Posted in Adventure, History on Friday, 20 April 2007

Sir Richard Burton

Richard Burton was so thirsty for adventure that no sooner had one expedition finished than he was planning the next one. Most explorers who venture into unknown lands and unknown oceans have as their goal a single exploit or a single place. Richard Francis Burton, however, was different. For him all strange, foreign places held an irresistible lure. No matter where the unknown existed — in Africa, South America, Arabia or India — Burton was agog to go there, to explore, to study and afterwards to write about it.

Burton was in many ways typical of his time. He was born in 1821 in Torquay, and the 70 adventurous years of his life covered a time when Britons were becoming increasingly conscious of their growing overseas Empire and increasingly curious about the lands which it included or which adjoined its territories. They were fascinated by the vast, unexplored interior of Africa, the unknown deserts of Australia and particularly by the mysterious, exotic Indian subcontinent.

In 1842, when Richard Burton arrived in Bombay, large numbers of Britons who went to India entertained notions of lording it over the natives, making a fortune from trade or tea-planting and returning to a life of idle luxury in England. Burton’s intentions were completely different. He wanted to get under the skin of the Orient, to learn its languages, observe its customs and probe its strange fatalistic faiths.

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Sony Walkman

Posted in Science, Technology on Thursday, 19 April 2007

Sony Walkman

The new Sony Walkman 2 is the smallest, lightest and most advanced stereo cassette player in the world. It was an ingenious Japanese electronics engineer who came up with the exciting concept of a personal hi-fi system. His own children had been asking him whether he had any ideas for an arrangement that would allow them to listen to their favourite music — giving a good quality sound — as they moved around, other than a fairly bulky cassette tape machine. His answer was the world’s first personal stereo cassette player — the Sony Walkman.

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Passport to peril

Posted in Adventure, History on Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Odette Sansom

Odette Sansom

When Odette Sansom, the French-born wife of a Briton, took some holiday snaps in Boulogne, she never dreamed that they would involve her in a series of dangerous adventures which would bring her close to death — more than once …

In the summer of 1940, when most of the British army had been safely brought back from Dunkirk, they left behind them a Europe which was now virtually in the hands of Nazi Germany. Plans to stop the Nazis taking over completely began at once. The War Office put out a request for photographs of the French Channel coast. One of those who replied was Odette. She sent in some snaps of Boulogne, which is situated in an area which she knew very well.

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Mary Slessor, Missionary

Posted in History, Religion on Monday, 16 April 2007

Mary Slessor

Though the daughter of a shoemaker, Mary Slessor spent most of her life walking around barefoot as she tramped amongst the swamps and jungles along the banks of the Cross and Calabar rivers in Nigeria. It was part of a vast area which was known as the “white-man’s grave”.

Mary was born in Scotland, the eldest daughter of an often-drunk father and a frail, God-fearing, hard-working mother. From an early age, due mainly to her mother’s influence, she was devoted to the Church. She had a strong belief that she would be called by God to go out into the world to preach the gospel.

She listened to the horrific tales told by missionaries returning from the Calabar region. Tales of cannibalism, slavery and, the most horrible of all to Mary, that twins were an evil omen and, therefore, were destroyed at birth, their tiny bodies squashed in to clay pots and thrown away, and their mothers banished from the tribe.

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Posted in History on Monday, 16 April 2007

Samurai warriors

“A samurai should live and die with a sword in his hand,” it was said — an apt comment on the way of life of probably the most elite band of professional soldiers the world has ever seen. The samurai warrior order emerged from a civil war that took place in Japan in the 11th century. In this the best soldiers had been employed in the service of the most powerful lords. Before long the samurai had developed their own code, the bushido,”the way of the warrior”. This code of honour governed every aspect of a samurai’s life and if one felt that he had broken it, he had to be prepared to kill himself.

A supremely exclusive order, the samurai was something that you were cither born into or had qualified for after the most rigorous training and tests. Training took many years and was designed to make the samurai oblivious to any physical comfort and totally fearless of death. He had to be prepared to tramp barefoot through snow for long periods and to disregard hunger. When one samurai fought another, their mutual respect was immense, and the winner of the fight was expected to praise his opponent’s bravery before he ceremoniously cut off his head!

Barbary lions

Posted in History, Nature on Monday, 16 April 2007

Barbary lions

Male Barbary Lions (left) could weigh 227 kilos and measure up to 300 cm from nose to tip of tail. The female was both paler and smaller. The numbers taken captive by the Romans were staggering — both Julius Caesar and Pompey were known to have shown hundreds of these big cats at a time. In real terms the lions of the arena were greater victims than the men they ate. Since then Christians have flourished; but the Barbary Lion is now extinct.

Feeling for words

Posted in History, Science on Monday, 16 April 2007

Reading Braille

When Laura Bridgman was two years old, she became desperately ill with scarlet fever. The effects of the disease in 1831 were devastating, and she was left blind, deaf and dumb. Despite these terrible afflictions, Laura, an American girl, grew up to be a cheerful, happy citizen who did much to help others in her situation. A tremendous contributor to her happiness was the superintendent of an institute for the blind in Boston.

He devised labels with raised letters on them which were stuck to various common objects such as forks and spoons, and after a lot of effort and patience, Laura learned the whole alphabet by connecting the objects with the letters spelling out their names.

This raised-letter system is still used, mostly to help elderly blind people, but books for the blind are now printed mainly in an alphabet of raised dots. The method was invented in 1829 by a Frenchman named Louis Braille, and thousands of sightless people are grateful to him for opening a window on the world they cannot see.

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Evans of the Broke

Posted in History, Ships, World War 1 on Monday, 16 April 2007

Evans of the Broke, picture, image, illustration

Evans of the Broke by Ken Petts

The night of 20 April 1917 was dark and menacing, the sea in the Straits of Dover calm under a cloudy sky. As the darkness thickened, and heavy clouds obscured the moon, two British destroyers, the Broke and the Swift, began their dangerous night patrol. Their job was a vital one, that of keeping the English Channel safe for allied shipping, and they were both equipped with powerful guns and torpedo tubes. The first indication that six German destroyers were near came when a series of vivid gun-flashes lit up the sombre night sky. The two British destroyers immediately changed course towards the attackers.

Swift attacked the enemy raiders, her guns blazing and torpedoes striking home. The German destroyers were so concerned with trying to escape from the Swift, that they did not notice the slower Broke steaming into their midst.

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‘A’ is for …

Posted in Nature on Friday, 13 April 2007


In this case ‘A’ stands for one of the strangest creatures in the London Zoo: a creature which looks like an anteater with a pig’s snout and donkey’s ears! This is an Aardvark, an animal that is completely different from any other animal in the world: an animal that is such a mystery that zoologists have put it into a scientific “group” of its own.

Aardvarks are far from simple to keep in zoos. There are two main problems, and the first is diet. In the wild the Aardvark tears open termite nests with its immense claws, flicks out its long, sticky tongue and eats termites by the thousand. It would be quite impossible for the zoo to provide such enormous quantities of insects, so their Aardvark had to be “weaned” on to a diet of minced meat, milk, eggs, puppy meal, and some added vitamins. Luckily, he is thriving on it.

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